A Not-So-Happy Accident: Bob Ross’s Estate Plan Leaves His Son With Next to Nothing

Bob Ross Painting

As the host of the wildly popular The Joy of Painting TV series on PBS, Bob Ross became a pop-culture icon. He was equally famous for his giant head of hair, soothing baritone voice, and folksy demeanor as he was for his iconic landscape paintings. And like so many other artists, Bob’s artwork and image would become even more popular following his death in 1995.  

Bob had a saying that there “were no mistakes in life… just happy little accidents.” Sadly, as detailed in the recent Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, Bob’s failure to coordinate his business agreements with his estate plan was anything but happy. Bob’s planning failures have led to an ugly court battle between his former business partners and his family, who were fighting for control of the lucrative intellectual property rights to the Bob Ross brand. We’ll explain the steps you can take to ensure that your loved ones don’t suffer the same fate and can benefit from all of your business assets following your death.

Building Bob Ross

Husband and wife duo, Walter and Annette Kowalski convinced Bob to go into business with them after meeting him at one of his early in-person painting classes. In 1985 they launched Bob Ross Inc. together. The corporation initially consisted of four equal partners: Bob Ross and his wife Jane Ross, along with Walter and Annette.

Bob Ross Inc.’s initial business had Bob teaching in-person painting classes up and down the U.S. East Coast. During classes, they sold painting supplies and art instruction manuals. The business began to take off after signing on with PBS for The Joy of Painting tv-series and launching their own line of Bob Ross-branded painting and art supplies.

From 1986 through 1994, Bob Ross Inc. registered several trademarks using Bob Ross’ name and likeness. The company also signed several licensing agreements with third parties, all with Bob’s consent. Although all four individuals were technically equal partners in the corporation, it was widely acknowledged that Bob was the one in charge, as well as the talent and face of the brand.

The success of the show boosted Bob’s fame and sales of art supplies. Eventually, Bob Ross Inc. offered painting workshops around the county with teachers trained in Bob’s method of instruction. Which all translated to significant financial achievement for the company. But the good times wouldn’t last.

Things Fall Apart

In 1992, Bob’s wife Jane passed away from cancer. Following her death, the structure of Bob Ross Inc. required that Jane’s share in the company be divided equally among the three surviving partners. As a result, Bob was reduced to owning just one-third of the company that bore his name and likeness.

Shortly after Jane’s death, Bob developed lymphoma. In 1994, the Kowalski’s offered Bob a deal. They reportedly faxed him an agreement that would give them all of Bob’s intellectual property rights as well as all of his artistic works. In return, the Kowalski’s would pay Ross or surviving heirs 10% of the profits from Bob Ross Inc.’s profits, but only for the next 10 years. After 10 years, the Kowalski’s would own Bob Ross, Inc- all for forever.

Bob refused the agreement and was reportedly furious they would propose such a one-sided deal. To protect his rights to his business and intellectual property, Bob made last-minute changes to his estate plan. He added a clause to the Bob Ross Trust that specified that all intellectual property rights to Bob’s “name, likeness, voice, and visual, written, or otherwise recorded work” would pass to his son, Steve, and Bob’s half-brother, Jimmie Cox.

Oddly, Bob’s half-brother Jimmie never shared the fact that Bob’s estate plan specifically left his intellectual property to Steve and Jimmie with Bob’s son Steve. Believe it or not, Steve would only learn of the changes to his father’s estate plan some two decades later.

Grand Theft Bob

Bob Ross died on July 4, 1995, at the age of 52. Upon his death, his estate was valued at $1.3 million, half of which was his one-third share in Bob Ross Inc. The Kowalski’s decided to sue Bob’s estate after his death for full control of his share and rights to his intellectual property. Nothing like adding insult to injury they say. They wanted all of Bob’s finished paintings- and all his supplies down to his easels and brushes. The Kowalski’s lawsuit was so expansive that one of Bob’s old friends took to calling their efforts “Grand Theft Bob.”

Without the financial means to sustain a prolonged legal battle, the estate’s executor, Jimmie Cox (Bob’s half-brother), settled in 1997. The settlement agreement was accompanied by the assignment of all of Bob’s intellectual property rights, which stated that “to the extent, if any, any such rights or incidents of ownership are somehow vested in Estate, Estate hereby conveys, transfers and assigns all such rights and incidents of ownership and ownership itself to Bob Ross Inc.”

Additionally, both the estate and the Bob Ross Trust also signed separate mutual releases with Bob Ross Inc. that state that the parties and their heirs, assigns, successors in interest, etc., “do, now and forever, absolutely and irrevocably, hereby release each other in and form any and all claims, suits, liabilities, complaints, losses, damages, and charges of any kind and character arising prior to the date of execution hereof.”

Bob Ross Reboot

As with so many other artists, Bob Ross’s fame reached its zenith in the years following his death, as more and more people discovered his work and persona via the internet. When Annette and Walt Kowalski handed control of Bob Ross Inc. to their daughter Joan in 2012, the Bob Ross brand would reach dizzying heights.

Things took off in 2015 when Joan allowed the streaming service Twitch licensing rights to The Joy of Painting’s 403 episodes. Other licensing opportunities yielded everything from Bob Ross bobbleheads, chia pets, to Christmas ornaments. All this has translated to major money for Bob Ross Inc. By 2017, Bob Ross branded products were bringing in more than a million dollars in licensing fees. Today, Both Netflix and Twitch stream The Joy Of Painting series, and there’s a Bob Ross sleep app available through the Calm meditation app platform.

Steve Sues Bob Ross Inc.

Bob’s son, Steve, claims that he didn’t know his father amended his estate plan to transfer all his intellectual property rights to himself and his uncle. It would be more than 20 years after his father’s death before Steve claims he found out about the clause in his father’s trust.

Based on this knowledge, Steve sued Bob Ross Inc., demanding compensation for years of unauthorized use of his father’s name and likeness based on his father’s estate plan. Sadly for Steve, the court didn’t agree with the claim. In 2019, the court ruled that Bob Ross’s trust could not have assigned the intellectual property rights to Steve and Jimmie because the Trust did not own those rights to begin with. The court found Bob had transferred all of his intellectual property to Bob Ross Inc. during his lifetime via oral contracts. Therefore, the amendment to Bob’s trust was irrelevant, since Bob Ross had already given all of the rights to his intellectual property to Bob Ross Inc.

In exchange for a modest payment, Steve gave up his claims to his father’s intellectual property. However, in the settlement, Steve did win the right to move forward with a business using his own name. He has since launched his own business teaching painting workshops in the very same studio where his father began his career. Steve was joined in his new venture by his father’s old friend Dana Jester. In September 2019, they held their first workshop where several dozen artists gathered to learn from the two most talented masters of the Bob Ross painting technique still alive today.

In the end, although Bob Ross clearly intended to leave his intellectual property rights to his son, because Bob failed to coordinate his business agreements with his estate plan, his son Steve will never share in the fortune that has been made by the vast business empire built on his father’s name, likeness, and persona. 

Learn from Bob’s Mistakes

Fortunately, you can easily prevent your loved ones from suffering the same fate as Steve using proper estate planning. In part two of this series, we’ll discuss how you can use estate planning to ensure that all of your business assets, including any intellectual property you own, are protected and passed on to your family following your death or incapacity. Until then, if you have a business, intellectual property, or any other type of asset that you want to include in your estate plan, meet with us. With our support and guidance, we can ensure that your loved ones will always be provided for and stay out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens to you.

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